Here are 5 burning questions about the semi-finals.
Is there a chance for a first-time champ?
When Finland shocked Canada with a 6-5 quarter-final win in overtime, it ended Connor Bedard’s chance to captain the Canadians to a repeat of their 2021 triumph in Texas. Out of the four remaining nations, only one has never won a U18 Worlds gold medal. The other three nations split the three titles handed out prior to 2021. Let’s recap briefly.
In 2017, Joel Farrabee’s second goal of the gold medal game – coming shorthanded early in the second period – proved to be the difference as the U.S. beat Finland 4-2 in Poprad. The Finns took the title in 2018 with Niklas Nordgren potting the 3-2 winner against the Americans in the final in Chelyabinsk. And in 2019, the Swedes earned their first U18 Worlds title with a 4-3 win over Russia, courtesy of Lucas Raymond’s spectacular overtime completion of his hat trick in Ornskoldsvik.
So Czechia, which has never topped the 2014 silver medal it earned in Lappeenranta, is the only candidate to become a brand-new champ. The Central European country that dominated senior IIHF competition from 1998 to 2001 with an Olympic gold medal and three straight World Championship titles could sorely use the infusion of pride and winning spirit that a U18 gold medal would bring.
But to get there, Czechia needs a semi-final upset over the Americans, who have clearly been the cream of the crop here and thumped the Czechs 6-2 in group play. There’s a chance, but it’s a slim one.
Can the Czechs hold the U.S. offence in check?
Relentlessly creative and ridiculously prolific, the Americans have scored 37 goals in four games so far for an average of 9.25 goals per game. It’s a tribute to the traditional strength of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. They’re on pace for 55.5 goals in just six games. (Due to the exclusion of Russia and Belarus, this year’s eight-team tournament offers a maximum of six games per team, instead of the usual seven games.)
If the U.S. stays on pace, that would shatter the single-tournament goals record that Canada set last year (51 goals in seven games). The U.S. single-tournament record (50 goals in seven games), established by the 2016 bronze medal team in Grand Forks, North Dakota, would also fall.
Coach Jakub Petr’s Czechs didn’t simply surrender in their Group A loss to the Americans. In fact, Jiri Kulich’s first-period goal gave them a 1-0 lead through 20 minutes. It was a second-period collapse with four goals allowed in 7:02 that sealed the Czechs’ fate.
The U.S. has a true four-line attack: every forward with the exception of Marek Hejduk has recorded at least three points. And while Czech blueliner Tomas Hamara has dominated offensively (0+7=7), the U.S. boasts three of the top five point-producing D-men in Seamus Casey (3+3=6), Lane Hutson (0+6=6), and Ryan Chesley (2+3=5).
The odds of the Czechs either outgunning the Americans or barring the door defensively are, again, slim.
Can anyone catch Jiri Kulich for the goal-scoring lead?
Fun fact: Jiri Kulich has scored eight times as many goals in his only U18 Worlds as David Pastrnak did in two U18 Worlds. (The 2020 Rocket Richard Trophy winner from the Boston Bruins had just one goal in 12 U18 games in 2013 and 2014.)
However, despite Kulich’s excellent ability to use his size to score from the slot, he’s got competition for the tournament goals crown.
U.S. captain Rutger McGroarty (6 goals) and his teammate Isaac Howard (5 goals) are hot on his heels. You also can’t rule out the hot hands of Finland’s Joakim Kemell (4 goals), whose hat trick – including the overtime winner – killed Canada’s quarter-final hopes. And Sweden’s Mattias Havelid (4 goals), who has totalled nine points, could become the first defenceman to lead the U18 Worlds in scoring since Canada’s Matt Dumba in 2012.
Like the points lead, the goals lead is up for grabs. Stay tuned, kids.
Is Finland ready to take revenge on Sweden?
Swedish and Finnish hockey players are used to answering questions about their fierce historic rivalry, but sometimes, you get the sense they find it overblown.
Certainly for this year’s U18 crop, Finland’s 6-1 romp over Sweden in the 2016 gold medal game in Grand Forks and Finland’s 2-0 blanking of Sweden in the 2018 semi-final in Chelyabinsk are closer to ancient history than rallying cries or gaping wounds.
However, with that said, Sweden’s lopsided 8-0 victory in the 2021 bronze medal game was a tough pill for Finland to swallow.
2022 returnees Joakim Kemell and Kasper Kulonummi would love to return the favour by spoiling Sweden’s gold medal hopes in Saturday’s semi-final. The Finns know they didn’t play their best or most consistent hockey in Sweden’s 4-3 group-stage win in Kaufbeuren. This’ll be spicy.
Who’ll win the Sweden-Finland special teams battle?
Without prior knowledge, you might assume that the tournament-leading American offence has racked up the best power play percentage here. You’d be wrong. Remarkably, the U.S. has the second-weakest power play so far, going 3-for-13 (23.08 percent).
It’s Sweden who leads the way at 10-for-20 (50 percent), with the Czechs second at 11-for-23 (47.8 percent) and Finland third at 7-for-17 (41.8 percent).
The Swedes and Finns are also neck-and-neck and middle of the road on the penalty kill. Finland is 70 percent on penalty-killing to Sweden’s 69.23 percent.
With such tight margins, both teams would be well-advised to stay out of the box. The team that keeps its emotions in check and executes with cool precision on its power plays is likely to advance to the 2022 U18 Worlds gold medal game on Sunday.